Humans of Science: Leonor Beleza

© Rosa Reis


Who are today’s scientists? Inspired by the project “Humans of New York”, Ar Magazine turns the spotlight on individual humans of science.

(Disponível em Português)

“I have learned many things about the world of science since I became the President of the Champalimaud Foundation.

Not having a formal scientific training myself, my contact with science had been either very remote – I come from the world of Law – or not very intense, but very close– when I was Portugal’s Minister of Health. 

This political experience, in fact, may have contributed to António Champalimaud’s decision to choose me to preside over the Foundation. And right from the start, 20 years ago, when I received a  telephone call from the Founder, I understood that what he wished for was an institution that would hold promise for human health.

Within a very short period of time, I had to focus on a very intensive learning process: going to the best places to meet the most renowned scientists, touring the most successful laboratories, talking to the decision makers who choose the paths to follow and allocate the resources. I had to visit universities, foundations, funders, vivariums, and see laboratory benches and equipment.

Also, I needed to collect multiple data; about health and disease, about what is spent and what works, about the areas where health and adequate investment are lacking. I found wise and generous people. I met scientists who helped me by sharing their knowledge with me and were also fascinated by the story I told them – about someone who had left so many resources without setting a detailed path, and had chosen someone who was neither his relative, nor friend to do the job. 

I dived into a fascinating world. And yes, I found realities I had no inkling about. I came to understand much better why, as some people told me, clinical work without scientific research would not go far.

But most of all, I have come to understand two things. 

The first is that, with adequate investment, both in human and financial resources, no mechanism generating imbalance and disease will go unclarified. It became obvious to me that clinical and research work are the two arms of the same quest to alleviate suffering, and that they have to be able to be articulated. The second thing has to do with the culture that allows breakthroughs. It has to value curiosity and the capacity to combine knowledge and creativity, it has to reject compromise and prejudice. It needs to embrace the cult of compassion and thoroughness – and, also, to blend a great deal of youthfulness with a dose of the experience from the not so young.

I don’t know if I will ever completely understand scientists, who are so different from the lawyers and politicians of my past worlds. But I know that society can only progress if it trusts science, believes in it and allows it to open new paths.”

Leonor Beleza is the president of the Champalimaud Foundation.

Translated from Portuguese by Ana Gerschenfeld.

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